A Boring Adventure

I once heard Peace Corps described as “a boring adventure.” I can’t think of a more apt description. That’s exactly what it’s like.

When I was preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, I was thinking of how many tedious things have to happen before embarking on any adventure. If you’re an adult ensconced in a real, adult life, there is a lot that must be undone if you choose to leave that life.

I had to quit my twos jobs, pack and move my belongings, cancel my utilities, find someone to adopt my chinchillas, and move my cat into my parents’ house.

And there was the paperwork. So much paperwork. Medical and legal clearance and a slew of other stuff to prepare and track and submit.

Now that I am serving in the Peace Corps, I have to submit a quarterly report about my activities. It’s not like Peace Corps turned us loose in Kosovo and said: “Have fun in Kosovo! See you in two years!”

I have no idea what happens to this report once staff reads it … I don’t know if it gets filed away somewhere in D.C. I’ve had to submit so much paperwork at this point (like all of my medical records) that it is a little scary.

[When my group first arrived in Kosovo, we were given (surprise!) more paperwork to complete. One form was about our recent medical history. They actually asked the question, “How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” I was temped to be a jerk and write, “SIX HUNDRED.” (Who in their right mind would answer that question?) But then I realized I probably didn’t want the U.S. government to be in possession of a document that says I slept with six hundred people in a year. (Not true, btw.) Instead I wrote, “Declined to answer.”]

So, yeah, the government has all kinds of info on me. And I don’t know who has access to it or what happens to it. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I’ve decided to share some of my answers from my recent report on this blog. Because … it’s my report, and why not?

Below is a slightly edited version. As I’ve said, I try to be respectful of others’ privacy, so I have removed some of what I wrote about my home life and school.

How could cross-cultural and language training be improved to support effective cultural integration?

I do not think training needs to be improved. My issues with cultural integration center around being a woman in a small village, and having limited opportunities to interact with local people. Spending time in the few cafes in my village is not an option, since it is not culturally appropriate for women to visit cafes alone. I sometimes shop at the small market or the bakery, and interact with local people working there. However, my interactions there are limited as well: “Miredita.” “Sa kushton?” etc. Therefore, most of my interactions take place in my host family or at my school.

What challenges have you faced in your project or other areas of your Peace Corps experience?

Living with a host family has by far been the most challenging part of my service. I feel as though I walked into a situation where expectations of who I was and what our relationship would be were already set. I continually have to set boundaries with my host mother, who very much expected us to have a mother-daughter relationship. She was not prepared to live with an independent, now- 36-year-old American woman.

What lessons have you learned about yourself, your community, or your project?

I have learned that, “Wherever you go, there you are.” My living circumstances have changed, and yet I am still the same person I have always been, with the same interests and habits I had in the United States. Living in Kosovo has prompted me to consider my own unique skills and gifts, and think of how best to use them in this context. I am never going to be the Most Outgoing Volunteer, or the Best at Language. And yet, that does not mean I cannot use what I have to be of use to my community. I am good at listening, I am good at observing the needs of my students, and I am creative, just to give a few examples. I bring all of these skills with me when I enter my classroom.

Finish this sentence: One thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is …

that appearances can be deceiving. Despite the fact that Pristina, for example, appears very modern and “Western” in many ways, life there is very different from life in a small village. Poverty rates are high where I live, and education and health care systems are poor.

How successful has your integration with your host family been?

I am unsure how to answer this question, to be honest. I would say I have a good relationship with my host family, in that we generally get along. I eat all of my meals with them, and will sometimes go with them to visit neighbors or other relatives. I am included in family events, like engagement parties, etc. However, as I mentioned previously, my relationship with my host mother is my biggest source of stress.

My relationships with my host father and host brother are much more easy going. Both of them are quiet people, as am I, and so we don’t actually spend a lot of time talking with one another. Meals are very quiet in my household. I also try to give my host father and brother a good deal of space. My host father is not old enough to be my real father (he is 51; I am 36), and I am aware of how inappropriate it would look if he and I were close. I feel the same way about my host brother (age 21). I want to state that I feel safe in my house. My decision to give the men in my household a wide berth has more to do with awareness of perception and cultural expectations than anything else.

What opportunities have you had to build relationships outside of your host family?

Regarding my actual community of [redacted], I have had very little opportunity to interact with locals. My village is small, and again, the culture dictates that I spend my non-working time at home. I have more professional contacts in the larger, nearby village of [redacted], thanks to my site mate and her counterpart. I have also met a good number of professional contacts who live in Pristina.

***

So, there you have it — an honest look at my life in Kosovo so far.

Pit Stop at Tartine, Pristina

Cafes are a big part of life here in Kosovo. (I’d love to see a report on the number of cafes per capita … there’s probably like one cafe for every five people in Kosovo. [I am making that up/exaggerating. But only a little.])

outside Tartine

Tartine is a popular breakfast place among the Peace Corps volunteers. Tartine primarily serves quiche, smoothies, and coffee.

During a low point this last winter, I remember lying in bed and scrolling through Google images of “fruit smoothies,” fantasizing about colorful, healthy drinks and feeling sorry for myself. (Pathetic.) A few weeks later, a friend introduced me to Tartine. And I got a smoothie! I also got a quiche and some coffee. 🙂

breakfast quiche tartine pristina kosovo

Although cafes are a big part of the Kosovar culture, in the smaller villages (like mine), they are frequented almost exclusively by men. I’ve heard that Tartine is owned by a woman. While I don’t know if this is true, every time I have been to Tartine I have only seen women working.

inside Tartine
Inside Tartine
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Cute decor
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A wall hanging … I’ll admit, I think this is weird.

If you’d like to read about other places I frequent in Kosovo, check out this post about Sach Cafe, and the (VERY SADLY!) now-closed Sweet Bean.

The Last Few Weeks Before Summer Vacation

I fully expected that the last few weeks of school would drag by. I thought I’d be eager for the school year to be over, so I could visit home and then enjoy my summer vacation. But surprisingly, the last few weeks went by quickly.

Above: One of my fourth graders wrote me a sweet letter, and drew some pictures for me.

It is a tradition in Kosovo for the 9th grade to have a prom. I’ll admit, I didn’t want to attend (I don’t even teach the 9th grade). In my experience, celebrations in Kosovo can go one of two ways: they’re either fun, or they drag on forever. I tried to get out of going to prom by saying I didn’t have any money (because everyone had to pay their own way). Well, then my host father insisted on paying for me. So I kind of had to go.

The prom turned out to be pretty fun. My experience was in no way the night-long marathon my friend Chester experienced and wrote about here.

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My counterpart, another teacher, and me
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Circle dancing (of course!)

The only “bad” thing that happened is that I was unexpectedly pulled in front of a microphone and asked to give a speech. Not only do I hate being put on the spot (who doesn’t?), I also don’t possess the language skills to spout off an impromptu speech in Shqip (Albanian). I managed to say, “Urime!” (congratulations), and then I ran away.

And last, my host family threw me a little birthday party before I left for the States. (I spent my actual birthday at home.) My host mother made all of my favorite foods: mish pule me patate (literally translated: meat chicken with potatoes), sallat shope (a salad with cucumber, tomatoes, and cheese), homemade cheese, and (not pictured), petulla (pronounced “pate-la”), which is fried bread with sugar on top. They also got me a chocolate cake.

Kosovo food
Kosovar food

chocolate cake

My host family invited my two site mates (Peace Corps speak for “other volunteers who live near you”) for dinner. Rachel brought Hello Kitty party hats.

happy birthday to me
Happy Birthday to me

Guest Blogger, Garrett Wheeler: Agriculture in Kosovo

April’s Note: My friend Nicole asked me to write a post about gardening/agriculture in Kosovo. Since I don’t know much about the subject, I decided to outsource her question. Below is the account of one of my fellow volunteers, Garrett Wheeler.

With the advent of spring arises a slew of tasks pertinent to raising crops. After months of neglect, farmers begin restoring fields marred by frigid weather. Makeshift fences, comprised of wood and barbed wire, oft become loose or fall apart on account of the wind. A pair of pliers, hammer, digging bar (an instrument somewhat akin to the crowbar), and U-nails are needed to mend damage accrued. While pliers pull and twist wire until taut, U-nails are driven into wooden stakes. The digging bar, aside from punching holes in the ground, may act as a sledgehammer fastening poles that have wriggled free.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Upon completion of maintenance, a far more grueling chore awaits; fertilization. As a tractor, equipped with a trailer, positions itself near the accumulated pile of manure, workers, with the aid of pitchforks, start the loading process. Though precautions, like gloves and rain boots, are taken to promote cleanliness, the job is inherently dirty. It is not uncommon, for example, to have dung flung your direction; especially when fatigue sets in. With the trailer overflowing, tractor and crew make their way to the field. While the tractor cruises at a leisurely pace, compost is scattered left and right. A sore back and tired arms are typically awarded to all participants.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

In preparation for sowing, a plow is hauled the entirety of a field leaving neat rows of finely ground soil in its wake. Utensils for digging are then used to create holes. As one punctures the earth, another trailing behind deposits seed. Corn and beans are planted simultaneously. While maize grows upright, the latter coils around adjacent stalks. A nearby stream supplies water when barred.

Gleaning of produce occurs in September. Hefty bags are carted and stuffed with brown pods. Those still green are unripe and need not be plucked. Though the weather may be warm, long sleeve shirts are worn to prevent cuts (maize leaves possess jagged edges which tear skin if brushed). Work is long and tedious requiring numerous days to complete. Corn, conversely, is harvested quickly. Buckets filled to the brim are dumped in a close by trailer towed by a tractor.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Beans reaped must then be strewn across a tarp and left to bathe in the sun. After several days, or when the shells become hard and brittle, the heap is battered with the shaft of a rake. Empty husks are then brushed away revealing seed below. Once the product has been gathered in containers, it is transferred to empty sacks. Prior to dumping, however, it is necessary to remove remaining debris. As one individual focuses on slowly pouring beans, the other uses a leaf blower to flush out unwanted material.

Within the next couple of weeks, sorting ensues. Spilling small sums onto a flat surface, beans malformed or gnawed by insects are discarded. What remains is either stored for consumption of whisked away to the nearest city and sold. Corn, depending on its strain, has two locales. A small granary houses a variation more red in hue used as fodder for chickens. Yellow corn is sent to the second floor of a neighboring building. A machine adeptly removes kernels dispelling bare cobs.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

My Favorite Photos from the Second Quarter

Without further adieu, here are my favorite photos from December 2017 until now. By my own method of counting, I have completed my second quarter of Peace Corps service.

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Peace Corps conference in December
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At the Po-E-Ze Competition

Vacation has started! #pristina #butnotforlong

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

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Eiffel Tower

London calling! #cheesy #tourist #london #england🇬🇧

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

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Chelsea and April, at a London Pub
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With Charlie, Chelsea, and Sierra, in Prizren, Kosovo

Serbian monastery in the snow. #peja #kosovo

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

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A walk in Pristina in February
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Happy kitty!

#Skopje #Macedonia #church 🇲🇰

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

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Fortress/castle from the Ottoman Empire, Skopje, Macedonia
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Traditional Kosovar clothing
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Visiting the Ecological Museum

April in Rome Favorite

April in Rome Umbrella Pines
Umbrella Pines
roman forum
Inside the Roman Forum
April Nicole
April and Nicole at Costanza Restaurant, Rome
Brandenburg gate 3
Tim, Rachel, and April, in Berlin
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Easter Eggs
art museum budapest
Budapest

I am so excited to be able to send my grandpa a postcard from his mother's home country! #budapest #hungary #motherland

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

Kosovo village Catholic church
My village in Kosovo
April Mirusha Waterfall
April at Mirusha Wateralls
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April, under a waterfall
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Anniversary dinner! Shay, April, Christian, Val, and Charlie

As always, thanks for reading! You can see my favorite photos from the first quarter here.

The Year of Living Dangerously

Today marks one year that I have lived in Kosovo! It is hard, in some ways, to believe that a year ago today, I moved to Kosovo. I met a bunch of strangers at Dulles Airport, boarded a plane with them, and have been with them ever since. Only now, I call them my friends.

Lately, I have noticed a big shift in how I feel about being here. While I still feel like a foreigner, Kosovo no longer feels foreign to me. Does that make sense?

I think having lived here through all four seasons has made Kosovo seem like less unfamiliar. In some ways, it feels like I just arrived here. But then, I remind myself I have sweated through a summer, hiked in the colors of fall, shivered through a snowy winter, and marveled at a long, luxurious spring.

I also feel less like some weird American living among strangers. Living with a host family, day-in and day-out, is less exhausting than it used to be. Boundaries are better set, roles are more clearly defined, and I have grown more used to being a part of life here.

In December, I wrote a post about how I have mentally divided my time here into quarters. By my own counting method, I have now completed two quarters.

My second quarter offered two, distinct parts. The first four months, I was miserable. The last two months were happy, and filled with travel, and friends.

I am thankful to have come out of the blues I dealt with this winter. I suspected my first winter would be tough, and it was. But then the weather changed, and I got to go to Rome an old friend, and my feelings shifted.

As much as I love the friends I have made during the Peace Corps, those relationships are new. It was nice to spend time with someone who has known me for nearly a decade. Thanks for your support, Nicole.

Nicole and April
Nicole and April at the Colosseum

I figure now would be a good time to check in with the Peace Corps “chart of emotions.” (I don’t know what it’s actually called.)

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So right now (months 11-14), I can expect to feel:

  • Impatience with self, program, system (Hmm, I think I actually felt more of this a few months ago.)
  • Place blame on the program (Again, I think I felt this a few months ago.)
  • Constant complaining (A few months ago … )
  • Lethargy (Yes. I definitely have less interest in everything … teaching, blog writing, crochet.)
  • Haughtiness with new trainees (HAHAHA. I haven’t met them yet, but I can see myself feeling this way. These new people, they don’t know what they’re in for!)

At times, the idea of living in Kosovo for another year seems daunting … when do I get to go back to a Western life? But when I think of it as 1/2 of my service being gone, I realize there is still so much more I want to do.

Here are some of my personal and professional goals for my coming service year:

  • Finish the grant for my school and (hopefully) be awarded funds
  • Host workshops this summer (narrative writing and essay writing are the plans for right now)
  • Present to Peace Corps volunteers in Albania about starting a poetry competition there
  • Help my friend organize the national poetry competition in Kosovo this fall
  • Start volunteering at an orphanage in Pristina this fall — I found out last week that my application was approved! I am meeting with one of the orphanage directors this week. I’m hoping this new opportunity fills the social work hole in my life.
  • Possibly do another secondary project for the fall (most likely, teach another English Club at my school)
  • Continue teaching. This is kind of obvious, since teaching is my primary role here, but I suppose I should add it to the list.
  • Get my stuff together and help my friends with their “Faces of Kosovo” project
  • TRAVEL THIS SUMMER! There are so many places I want to go in Europe. It’s hard to narrow them down. But if I had to list everywhere I want to go, they would be: Tirana/southern Albania, Greece, Bratislava, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Prague, Vienna, Croatia, Bruge, England/Paris (again), Florence … SO MANY PLACES!
  • Travel around Kosovo. There are still places in Kosovo I want to see, including Mitrovice (major city), Brezovice (skiing), Dragash/Opoje (conservative mountain villages), Skenderaj (Adem Jashari memorial), Rahovec (wine), Batilava Lake (sounds pretty), the Bear Sanctuary (uh, bears) …
  • Get my face painted like a Kosovar bride … This is an experience I really wanted to have while living in Kosovo. I’ve checked into it, and the price would be 150 Euro. That’s a lot of money for me right now … almost all of my spending money for a month. I need to think about it some more …
  • Continue writing this blog regularly, and enter the Blog It Home contest this fall, assuming Peace Corps still hosts it
  • Learn to speak better Shqip (This is not going to happen. It’s just not. I know I’m going to leave service wishing I could speak fluent Albanian, but I won’t.)
  • Continue to build/strengthen my friendships here. I have made an effort to have a breadth of friendships here, to try to be friendly with my entire cohort. However, I feel like I don’t have a depth of friendship yet. It would be nice to have a “best friend” in the Peace Corps.
  • Think about writing a second grant for my school
  • Continue to consider options when I finish Peace Corps. I’ll likely return to social work, but where/in what capacity remains to be seen …

Welcome, Kosovo Group 4!

Kosovo is the second-newest Peace Corps country. My cohort is the third group of volunteers here. (If you’re curious, you can see a full list of Peace Corps countries, including the length of their programs and the number of their currently-serving volunteers, here.)

In a week, the newest Kosovo cohort arrives! The feeling I have is not unlike entering my senior year of high school. You know how things are so much better when you’re a senior, because you’re the oldest and you know everything and you’re excited for the future? That’s how I anticipate feeling in the coming year. One year of service down, one more to go!

I remember how I felt this time last year … my last week in the United States. My emotions ran the gamut from happy, sad, excited, scared, anxious, and hopeful.

Last fall, I created some blog posts in order to provide helpful information to the new cohort, as they were beginning to receive their acceptance letters. With only a week to go before they arrive in-country, I thought I would re-post the links to those posts.

Other posts that might be helpful:

Pre-Service Training

All About Kosovo

Teaching

Lesson Plans and Activities

Albanian/Shqip Language

Guest Bloggers (Different perspectives from my fellow Kosovo Peace Corps Volunteers)

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Travel Within Kosovo

We are looking forward to meeting you, Kosovo Group 4!